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Lessons From Out of This World

Space-program star Eileen Collins provides a snapshot of insights she’ll share next month at NACUBO’s annual meeting.

By Karla Taylor

For Collins, the news was surprising, even embarrassing—how had everyone overlooked this possibility? But it was not a reason to panic.

“Frankly, I wasn’t worried about it,” she says. “In the Columbia case, ignorance was a major part of what happened. I knew that we [now] had enough safeguards in place. I was excited; I was focused; I was working hard; I was very busy. I’ve been scared in airplanes during thunderstorms. But on this mission, I wasn’t scared of anything. It’s amazing how confident you feel when you’re up there.”

Because the crew had trained for more than two years for such an event, the fear that disaster could repeat itself would not cloud the astronauts’ judgment. The training reflected what NASA astronauts and engineers had learned the hard way: Be confident in your knowledge of how to make the shuttle work. But, just in case, be willing to admit mistakes and be flexible enough to try new things. And, of course, by employing those lessons, the crew brought Discovery back safely.

Sharing Wisdom and Wit

NASA’s lessons for leadership—the need for rigorous training, the importance of in-depth knowledge, and the key skills for working well with others in a crisis—will be the subject of Collins’s featured presentation at the NACUBO annual meeting, July 28–31, in New Orleans.

“My speech is about leadership in organizations that take risks,” says Collins, now a 50-year-old retired colonel in the United States Air Force. “NASA, clearly, takes risks. But every organization, including a university, needs to take some risks to change with changing times. There are a lot of things people can learn from the way we operate around risks at NASA—including when we’ve made mistakes.”

But Collins’s NACUBO presentation won’t overlook what’s fun—and even funny—about being in space. She’ll include pictures of an astronaut’s-eye-view of Earth as well as a video about daily life on the final frontier. Even when pieces aren’t flying off your craft, space is a “strange, magical world” with plenty of weird moments, Collins says.

There’s the challenge of moving from one point to another inside the shuttle without crashing into things. From her four space shuttle trips, she learned the hard way that the best place to tether her sleeping bag is on the ceiling and that she should sleep on her back—so that fellow astronauts won’t inadvertently kick her in the face while they float past the aerial bunk.

There’s the silly way space travelers look. “Your face appears fat when there’s no gravity to keep it down, and your shirt floats up around your chin if you’re not careful to keep it tucked in,” she says.

Then there’s the problem of losing things—pencils, a wrench, even food—which can drift away despite the best efforts to keep them Velcroed in place.

Realizing a Childhood Dream

In conversation from her home in Houston, Collins discusses all these unworldly phenomena in a cheerful, down-to-earth tone. She’s equally matter-of-fact about her remarkable record of achievement. After a childhood in Elmira, New York, spent dreaming of flight, she paid for flying lessons with money saved from her job in a pizza parlor. With the help of scholarships, she worked her way through Corning Community College, Syracuse University, and eventually the Air Force Test Pilot School. In 1990, NASA recruited Collins for its astronaut program.

Aboard Discovery, Collins blasted off on the first of her shuttle missions, in 1995, when she became the first woman to pilot a shuttle. Taking Columbia into space in 1999, she was the first woman to command a shuttle mission. Collins retired from the program in 2006, after she and her crew safely brought Discovery’s 2005 “Return to Flight” mission back to Earth despite the debris incident.

How did they do it? Using cameras on a robot arm, the crew inspected the heat shields. Approaching the International Space Station, Collins piloted the shuttle through an unprecedented maneuver that let the station’s crew take detailed pictures of the critical areas. In a series of spacewalks, Discovery’s crew repaired the shuttle’s skin and gyroscopes—while conducting the first spacewalking repair of a shuttle’s underbelly.

Modeling Positive Practices

When You Can Hear Collins
Astronaut Eileen Collins will address a NACUBO Annual Meeting featured session on Monday, July 30, from 2:00 p.m. to 3:15 p.m.

One key to such creative problem solving, Collins says, was the calm example she presented for her crew. “I’m usually very happy in space. As the commander, if I’m in a good mood, the people around me are more relaxed, and their minds are clear and able to focus on our mission.”

But she credits her crew’s crisis-handling ability to NASA’s leadership principles—principles that can be applied, she notes, in any organization. They include the importance of gaining the knowledge to be the best you can be, of working productively with people, and of maintaining integrity.

And, above all, there’s the importance of preparation. In space missions, as in any other well-run operation, Collins says, “most of the hard work is done on the ground. Once you’re in space, the mission should be easy because you’ve trained so much.”

KARLA TAYLOR, Bethesda, Maryland, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.